Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Why the NFL Loves and Hates Nick Saban

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 22, 2015

Butch Dill/AP Images

1. The NFL's love/hate relationship with Saban

The NFL loves Nick Saban. The NFL hates Nick Saban. 

This has always been. This will always be. NFL coaches and scouts who know Saban believe his is one of the more brilliant football minds they've ever known. There are NFL coaches and scouts I know who speak to Saban monthly, if not more often than that.

Bill Belichick and Saban are close, and it's possible a play Belichick used against the Ravens in the postseason last year came from Saban.

One team source told me that every time there's an NFL coaching opening, that team will contact Saban's agent. "And when I say every time," the source said, "I mean every time."

Yep, the NFL loves Nick Saban.

And with equal intensity, the NFL hates him.

I've heard players over the years rail on just how savage, selfish and mean-spirited Saban is. It's more than the normal coaching toughness.

In Monte Burke's new Saban biography, Saban: The Making of a Coach, he quotes Cris Dishman on playing for Saban (via Pro Football Talk): "I thought my name was F--king Assh--e for a long time. First name F--king, last name Assh--e."

Then came the comments of Plaxico Burress last week. Burress played for Saban at Michigan State, and when Burress heard Saban's comments saying the timetable for players to receive feedback on their NFL prospects should be pushed back because it was a distraction, Burress went off on Twitter:

Plaxico Burress @plaxicoburress

I recall Nick Saban telling me to stay in school finish what I started, I wasnt 1st round pick and he left for LSU b4 the season was over

Plaxico Burress @plaxicoburress

Now Nick Saban goes on tv saying that kids are distracted by NFL projections. Well, the kids are just chasing a dream that you were. $$$

Plaxico Burress @plaxicoburress

N Saban looked his players in the face at the Duf, said he wasnt leavin, I'm committed to the program" and was gone the next day. Tru story

Plaxico Burress @plaxicoburress

Now Nick Saban players are being distracted by the NFL and chasing a dream, haha tell your story Nick. LSU showed you $$, you was GONE! Ha

Plaxico Burress @plaxicoburress

Nick Saban actually told me I was a second round pick. I said, "where are you getting your info from? Are you watching these games? Hahaha

Plaxico Burress @plaxicoburress

I was a 19 year old kid, the man that recruited me to play for him, look me in my face and told me a lie.

Saban, in an interview with ESPN's First Take on Monday, denied the most explosive of Burress' charges, that Saban purposely gave Burress a bad draft grade so Burress would stay at Michigan State and not turn pro. Saban said, via AL.com:

Plaxico Burress was a great player for us. He was a fantastic player. He had a great career. He made the right decision to go out for the draft. He was a first-round draft pick. He had a great career as a pro player. I'm proud of what Plaxico Burress has been able to accomplish.

I've never knowingly told a player any information that I get, I get from someone else. And I can't even remember the conversation. I actually left Michigan State right after the Penn State game. I didn't stay for the bowl game when I went to LSU and that was Plax's senior year. We're proud of what he's been able to do and we're happy to see him have as much success as he's had.

To some players and team officials in the NFL, the words of Burress were no shock. It was only a shock that someone said it publicly.

"Nick," said one team official, "has always only been about Nick."

The reason this story is important, more important than gossipy quotes or gossipy tweets from Saban's former players, is because it opens old Saban wounds in the NFL.

Saban has always been greatly respected by the NFL's old guard, who view him as a genius who coaches football the way it was meant to be coached—meaning hard-nosed, meaning in your face, meaning calling players "F--king Assh--es."

Saban was on his way to being an NFL coaching superstar after taking the Miami Dolphins job. I had people telling me they thought Saban would win multiple Super Bowls there. And then he bolted. Worse, he bolted after swearing publicly he wouldn't leave.

The Saban era in Miami, I've been told by players (and I agree with them), is one of the first moments in league history—if not the first—when players began to rebel against harsher coaching techniques. A coach can get away with screaming and yelling at players if the team wins. If it loses (Saban went 15-17), players won't tolerate it. The Saban situation at Miami was one of the first times players said, Um, no dude. You're not Bill Walsh. We're not going to put up with your crap.

I would not say what happened to Saban in Miami was a rebellion. But it was damn close to one.

Many in the NFL believe that is why Saban went back to college. It was not just that he'd have more control, but also that he could use harsher coaching techniques because the kids there have few outlets to complain—or rights, for that matter. Saban could do what he wanted.

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 13:  Nick Saban head coach of the Miami Dolphins argues a pass interference call against his team against the New England Patriots at Dolphins Stadium on November 13, 2005 in Miami, Florida. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 23-16. (
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

He could push players in college in ways the pros would no longer tolerate.

One of the key moments for the Saban regime in Miami, as relayed by the Palm Beach Post's Hal Habib: "The time Saban stepped over offensive lineman Jeno James, who had collapsed into convulsions and needed to be airlifted to a nearby hospital." It was cruel and a horrible visual for a coach who used to constantly tell the locker room the Dolphins were a family.

None of this is to bash Saban. It is stated to show that professional football has long regarded him as someone to praise and someone to dislike—extremely so in both cases. The NFL knows who Saban is, to love and to hate.

One team executive told me it was typical selfish Saban to argue the NFL should wait until after a big game to tell players about their expected draft positions. There were NFL officials laughing, literally laughing, at the idea.

That said, Saban actually might have a good point. He is far from the only coach in college football who feels this way. Maybe many, if not all, do. Most coaches on that level—not all but most—seem to care mostly about how things impact them and not the athletes. The entire NCAA system is a testament to that. 

But no one from the NFL wants to hear it from inauthentic, selfish Nick Saban.

What we learned from Saban is that one thing about him, when it comes to professional football, remains true. It may always remain true.

The NFL loves Nick Saban. The NFL hates Nick Saban.

2. NFL scouts on NCAA's top coaches

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01:  Head coach Urban Meyer (R) of the Ohio State Buckeyes shakes hands with head coach Nick Saban (L) of the Alabama Crimson Tide  after the All State Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2015 in New Orleans,
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

A scout on Saban: "If you gave Saban total control of an NFL team now—he could make the decisions on personneland he toned down slightly how he dealt with players, he would dominate the sport. I'm not one of these guys who rips Nick behind his back but wouldn't hire him. I would hire him in a heartbeat."

The same scout on Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: "Except for Bill [Belichick], the smartest coach in all of football. That's not hyperbole. I think if he came to the NFL—and he might in a few years, in my opinion—he'd win a Super Bowl in a few years."

3. Yeah, sure, right T.O.

Terrell Owens said on the Rich Eisen Show he doesn't care if he gets into the Hall of Fame. If you believe that...

Oh, he wants in, and you know what else, he should get in. Owens is a no-brainer. He is easily one of the top two or three receivers of his generation. He's second on the all-time receiving yards list (15,934), third in touchdown catches (153) and sixth in receptions (1,078). By any statistical or any other football metric, he is a Hall of Famer.

If you don't like Owens, well, that's not relevant to the Hall of Fame. His likability doesn't matter. His football abilities do, and they were as good as almost any receiver's in history.

4. The Favre celebration

Mike Roemer/Associated Press

Brett Favre was back at Lambeau Field on Saturday, having his jersey retired and being inducted into the Packers' Hall of Fame. It was wonderful to watch. The ceremony was a piece of joy at a time in the sport when there has been so little.

The moment got me wondering where exactly Favre ranks among the best quarterbacks of all time. I wouldn't rank him in the top five, which at the moment goes like this:

  1. Tom Brady: Did more with less than any quarterback in history.
  2. John Elway: Best combination of athleticism and throwing accuracy.
  3. Johnny Unitas: Incredible accuracy and toughness.
  4. Joe Montana: Obviously great but slightly penalized because he had so much talent around him, which made his job a lot easier.
  5. Dan Marino: Pure passer with beautiful mechanics.

Favre would be somewhere in the next batch, with Roger Staubach, Steve Young, Warren Moon and Peyton Manning.

Brady, to me, is the clear best of all time, and I think it will remain that way for some time. But I also believe when Aaron Rodgers retires, he will be seen by many as the best ever, and I think 50 years from now, he may still be seen the same way. He's that special.

In fact, in the year 2050—after the Vulcans make first contactmany might still rank two Packers quarterbacks from the past few decades, Rodgers and Favre, in the top 10 of all time. They might be remembered as the NFL's great quarterback team.

Right now, that distinction probably belongs to the 49ers, who have two of the top 10 (Montana and Young), though it's arguable. The Colts also have two in my top 10 (Unitas and Manning), with another potentially on the way (Andrew Luck).

You could make a case for the Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Bradshaw) or Cowboys (Staubach and Troy Aikman). In a few years, you could have the Packers, Colts and 49ers with seven of the top 10.

5. Last Favre note

There are many Favre stories. Many, many, many Favre stories. Some of my favorites are the ones about where Favre might have ended up playing, if not Green Bay.

One incredible story comes from the excellent football writer Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated. Farrar has long been around the Seattle Seahawks, and on Twitter he told the story of how then-coach Chuck Knox wanted to draft Brett Favre but was overridden by ownership.

Who did ownership want? It wanted quarterback Dan McGwire.

Freaking Dan McGwire.

Doug Farrar @BR_DougFarrar

That story where Chuck Knox wanted to draft Brett Favre, and was overridden by ownership who insisted on Dan McGwire, is a real nut punch.

Favre will go in the Hall of Fame. McGwire, in five years in the NFL, threw two touchdowns and six interceptions.

The Seahawks weren't the only dummies that year. McGwire was the first quarterback taken. Favre went in the second round.

6. Is this the Packers' year?

Morry Gash/Associated Press

One more word on Green Bay. I think this is the Packers' year. They are in a division that is still overall fairly weak (though the Vikings in the near future could be dangerous as hell). Rodgers is getting better by the second. He also has even more weapons. The defense is getting better—not great—but better. The coaching is excellent.

I know I go back and forth on this. I'm torn between the Packers, Seahawks and Cowboys. I know, I know. 

Several assistant coaches I highly respect said they believe Rodgers will have a career year. Which is saying something.

"Last month, I looked at film of him from last season," said one AFC defensive assistant, "and I saw a guy who has barely tapped into his greatness. There's more to come, and I think we're going to see it this year."

7. Wilson contract done before start of season?

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

An increasing number of team officials around the sport think there's little chance the Seahawks and Russell Wilson will agree to a new contract before the season begins.

No one except Wilson and the Seahawks truly know where things stand, of course. The two sides could agree to a new contract tomorrow.

But all indications remain there has been little, if any, progress. I'm also told by an NFL source with knowledge of the situation that talks have not gotten acrimonious but that they are "just a few notches below that." That is not terribly unusual in these situations. Things can get tense.

Again, contract talks can move swiftly, but for now, it still looks like Wilson will be without a new deal once the season starts.

8. Class move by Peyton Manning

Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

Manning visited the scene of the Chattanooga shooting this past weekend to help honor the soldiers who were killed (via WRCB). He did it unannounced. Classy thing to do. 

9. Cowboys, Bucs and 49ers enter the future in big way

The Bucs announced Monday they "will begin using the SIDEKIQ simulator football software developed by EON Sports VR [Virtual Reality] as a supplement to their on-field work for quarterbacks when the team reports back for training camp beginning on Aug. 1."

I think this type of step will become commonplace in football. The use of virtual reality in training, NFL team officials have told me for years now, will be commonplace in just a few years. Which means all quarterbacks will look like this.

The Cowboys were actually the first NFL team to use this technology (via PFT). The 49ers also are joining the holodeck fray. The advantage of this is obviously huge. If a team can create a convincing virtual environment, it can re-create all kinds of football scenarios. A quarterback could simulate blitz pickups or coverages over and over, all basically in his head. It could work in every football scenario for every position.

It's only a matter of time before we see every team do this. It's also only a matter of time before teams figure a way to monetize the product, and the race is on for a company to become the official virtual-reality provider for the NFL.

10. The Friday News Dump

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 30:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that Marcus Peters of the Washington Huskies was picked #18 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs during the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I've often had fun with the NFL over its seeming penchant to dump bad news on Friday, late in the day. This way the bad news is dispersed over the weekend so fewer eyes can see it.

The NFL used to constantly do this, but as the Boston Globe's Ben Volin pointed out this week, it isn't doing so any longer. The league has become sensitive to this and changed its ways.

The release times of several news events of the past year:

News eventDateTime (ET)
Ray Rice two-game suspensionThursday, July 24, 20141:12 p.m.
Rice indefinite suspensionMonday, Sept. 8, 20142:41 p.m.
Adrian Peterson suspensionTuesday, Nov. 18, 20148:41 a.m.
Peterson reinstatedThursday, April 16, 20152:03 p.m.
Wells Report on DeflategateWednesday, May 6, 20151:02 p.m.
Tom Brady four-game suspensionMonday, May 11, 20155:31 p.m.
Antonio Gates PED suspensionThursday, July 2, 20154 p.m.
Greg Hardy suspension reductionFriday, July 10, 20152:20 p.m.
Boston Globe

So this all means no more jokes from me about the famed FNDs.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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